Sneeze-Free Gardening

Go ahead and dig in -- with these simple tips

Even if you have seasonal outdoor allergies, following a few simple guidelines will help you can keep a beautiful, vibrant garden with minimal sniffling and sneezing.

Plan your plants

  • Plant low-allergen varieties. If you already have a garden that’s making you red-eyed and sneezy, you may need to replace some plants. 
  • Avoid plants with tiny pollen grains that are wind-sown. This includes many grasses, trees and shrubs.
  • Choose plants that use their own pollen for fertilization, such as petunias.
  • Choose plants that count on hosts for pollination. These usually include big, showy flowers. They rely on birds, bees, or butterflies to carry pollen from one plant to another. Since it’s not carried on the wind, the pollen tends to be heavy, large and sticky. So few pollen grains end up in your eyes and airways.
  • Stick with native plants if you can. They’ve already adapted to the climate, so they'll need less care—watering, fertilizer and pesticides. Local birds and insects may also be more attracted to native plants.
  • Disease resistant plants are also a good idea, because they’re less likely to harbor molds and mildew.
  • Mow your lawn. Almost all grasses produce light, highly allergenic pollen. But, if you keep your lawn mowed, the grass can't flower and release its pollen. Since mowing can stir up allergens, remember to use a mask (or a gardener) for mowing.
  • Shade trees, especially hardwoods, are also highly allergenic and should be avoided. Many of these trees bloom before their leaves grow in, allowing the wind to pick up and carry their pollen.
  • “Seedless” or “male” varieties of trees and shrubs are also a bad idea. If you do include any of these highly allergenic plants in your garden, make sure you plant them away from doors, windows and high-traffic areas of your yard.
  • Watch those weeds. Don’t let any weeds grow to maturity. Pull them out before they flower!

Plan your day

  • Limit gardening time. You may love nothing better than to spend the whole day digging in the dirt. But even if you’re using only low-allergen plants, you may still sneeze and itch. For some people, prolonged, close exposure to even the traditionally safe plants may bring on allergies.
  • For some people, the strong smells of many flowering plants can trigger allergies.
  • While your garden may be relatively allergen-free, your neighbor’s may not be. Pollen can travel great distances, even state to state!
  • Watch out for molds, too. They often grow in composts and in the wood chips, bark, shredded leaves and similar materials used to mulch a garden. You may want to do away with that compost heap, and switch to pebbles instead of mulch. Mold, mildew, dust and pollen can also collect in the branches of hedges, so keep those hedges pruned!
  • Skip mornings. It’s a lovely time to garden, but it’s also when pollen counts are highest. Better bet: late afternoon and early evening.
  • Cool and cloudy? Garden away!
  • Did it rain and clear up? The pollen count is likely very low now. Get out to the garden! The exception: A really brief thunderstorm can actually raise pollen counts briefly.
  • Share the chores. Mowing the lawn and tending the compost pile will aggravate your allergies. See if someone else can do this for you. You may even want to do away with the compost, and hire a lawn service to keep your grass cut.
  • Don’t touch your face, especially around your nose and eyes, while you’re gardening!
  • When you’re done, wash up. Wash your face and hands immediately after coming in from gardening. Be sure to shower and wash your hair as soon as possible, and get those clothes in the laundry!

Reviewed by: Marc J. Sicklick, MD, FAAAAI, FACAAI

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